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FREE SPEECH ZONE | The Second Chance Prom: Dancing with the Minnesota Freedom Band
Last night I attended the Minnesota Freedom Band’s “Second Chance Prom” at a glittery dance center in a St. Paul strip mall. The scarred wood floor was slick, as were the bottoms of my used men’s black wing tips, as was, frankly, my outfit: a 1940s Japanese “mourning” tuxedo with tails over a Hanes black v-neck t-shirt and a pair of gray and black pinstriped pants. The sleeves were a bit short, and the shoulders a bit tight, but overall, given the thousands of miles separating the continent I live on from the continent it came from, and the decades interceding its first owner and me, it fit quite well.
Before you permanently settle on the belief that I am an ego-maniac, I want to add that everyone at the Second Chance Prom looked smashing. There were bright pink and forest green and gold gowns worn by women and one man; black tuxes worn by a number of men (and me); short flowing skirts; dark jeans; some sort of floral hat get up; fedoras; and suit, tie, and vest outfits worn by men and women. One half of a couple wore a bright pink prom dress. Her girlfriend sported a matching cummerbund. There were some straight people there too, who, so the story went, missed their high school prom for some reason. So I guess it’s not just a gay thing.
When my friends, Robin and Barb, and I arrived at the dance studio (my partner, April, is in the band and had already been there two hours) I walked by a mirror and spotted a light gray swath across the tails. Ah, I yelled, alarmed. After all, the tux is vintage. I can't run out to Men's Wearhouse and replace it. In the mirror the swath looked like light gray paint. Right after I yelled Robin said, Chris, get into the bathroom! I wheeled on the slippery soles of my shoes toward the women’s room, while craning my neck to look directly at my backside. It’s cat hair, I said relieved. But I don’t have any tape. Apparently, Natalie, my cat, made a nest out of it one day when it fell off its hangar in the closet. Barb, who is a dentist with numerous dogs and cats and thus has plenty of experience dehairing her clothes before work, said I’ll help get it off. Water works. So we checked into the bathroom while Robin, Barb’s partner of thirty years, sat on the bench outside. I hung the jacket, my beloved 1940s Japanese “mourning” tux, on a hook on the door and together we wet our hands, and then swatted and swiped at the tails. What exactly is a “mourning” Japanese tux, I wondered as our pawing rattled the door. Is it only for funerals?
Nice “mourning” jacket, Dan, a member of the band, said from behind me as I wound through the ballroom, crowded with large round tables wearing white tablecloths; paper plates of cheese squares, Ritz crackers, fruit, raw veggies, potato chips, and dip; and dark Guinness beer bottles. Wow, I thought, how strange he knows it is a “mourning” jacket. April must have told him what kind of jacket it is. I figured a “mourning” Japanese tuxedo, which is what is inscribed on the inside of the lapel, must be a very specific sort of clothing item. Or did something in the cut or button placement give away its secret? Thank you, I responded, and we had a short chat about Tatters, the used retro store I bought it from. As we parted, Dan said, And the pants are a nice touch. Thanks, I said, but had no idea why they were a nice touch. I’d just pulled them out of my closet, in a borderline panic as my early evening run had put me on the verge of being late to my partner’s concert. I’d only been able to fit into them again recently thanks to eight months of running 40-50 miles every six days.
Later I found out April and Dan had not chatted about the jacket (like why would they, right?) Amazing, I said, as April and I snuggled in bed the morning after the concert, that he would look at the jacket and immediately know it is a “mourning” jacket. April then related a brief anecdote regarding how she and Dan used to go on bicycle rides together years ago after they’d both broken their legs. After she finished her story, I asked, What is a “mourning” jacket? April shook her head. I don’t know, she said. He’s from Upstate New York. As if that would explain his keen eye for tuxedo styles. (It doesn’t, she grew up in New York City and is lonely out here in the Midwest for her East Coast people.)
After winding through the tables, Robin, Barb, and I sat down with our other friends, immediately ripping open the Chinese take-out we’d snuck in because we had not had an opportunity to eat dinner. We divvied up the chicken and tofu dishes amidst a few stares. You can take a girl out of the working class, but you can’t take the working class out of the girl, I said about the three of us, who grew up working class. After finishing off the tofu dish and a plate of potato chips and dip (my favorite food in all the world which I eat about once a year because it is unhealthy), Robin leaned over and told Barb and me that we had unknowingly raised a ruckus while in the bathroom. What, I asked, trying to think of what we did. I wondered if we hadn’t entirely cleaned up the pile of soggy cat hair near the door. Women lined up to use the room while you were in it and left, their eyes rolling, Robin said. You were banging the door. I was so embarrassed. Barb and I eyed each other and sort of laughed. Us? we asked, and laughed a little more while avoiding eye contact. Did they see who had gone into the room? I asked. Some of them, Robin said, when you left and when you went in. Oh, I said and glanced around the room wondering who had seen us and assumed we were going at it hot and heavy while Barb's partner sat outside and mine played in the band.
Now, I’m no prude. I’ve made out in a variety of locations over the years with a variety of women, and I could see the humor, but I was a bit embarrassed too, especially since some might think I was doing it in the bathroom while my honey played third clarinet. Also, for me, the kinds of things much of society believes about lesbians and gays rears its head every once in awhile. For some reason it did that night, perhaps because proms are so associated with the straight world, or perhaps because there were a number of straight folks in attendance, and I am not as comfortable at a mixed LGBT event as I am at an event with just queers. It’s not that I don't think allies should attend our events, or that I want to live in a gay ghetto. It's just that it is not the same. I am always at least minimally aware of straight folks at a gay event, causing me to check myself to not adjust or censor my behavior in accordance with the heterosexism and homophobia I grew up feeling acutely aware of, and that is all around us even now, in the post-Ellen-coming-out-world.
Once we gathered ourselves after the accidental bathroom banging incident, our table of nine danced, filled out bids for the silent auction, and ate more snacks. I, myself, got buzzed on a can of Coke to go along with the run-induced endorphin rush until I felt a bit high, but not anywhere near as high as I was the night of my high school prom, when I went with my “boyfriend” of six months, got wasted, and spent much of the night with my female friends. I’d selected my boyfriend carefully, after deciding one day the summer before my senior year to “get a boyfriend, grow out my hair, and be normal.” I’d known I was “different” since I was four, but I couldn’t take being queer in the mid 1980s. I couldn’t handle being called “son” by customers at work, or called “dyke” as I dribbled down the basketball court, so my senior year in high school I pretended to be straight. The boyfriend was proof.
Eventually, the band went on break and April and our pack of friends decided to check out the back corner room where, according to rumors, people were getting their pictures taken for free. Minnesotans United For All Families, an organization created in response to a public vote about whether to make same sex marriage in Minnesota unconstitutional, had set up a black backdrop with a pillowy white umbrella light and a table across which six or so small chalkboards sat. The top half of the boards read: “Marriage is…” I got a little nervous. Now, I must confess, I spent my childhood in fear of marriage. If I were married, it meant I was with a man, and I very much did not want that. (At that time, Martina and a couple of teachers were the only lesbians I knew—and I just knew it. No one said the word.) I also feared marriage because my parents hated each other and fought constantly. So I did not exactly want anything to do with the “M” word. Growing up, I did not have fantasies of weddings with me in a dapper black tux and my girlfriend in a tight-fitting white dress, like some lesbians my age or older did when they were young. I just wanted out—out of the closet and out of the family unit.
As my girlfriend fiddled with one of the blackboards she became quiet, pressing her lips together the way she does when she is shy. I buckled down my anxiety about the “M” word because I didn't want her to think my skittishness was about her. Part of me wanted to bolt out the door, but I reined it in, and we took what would be an adorable picture of the two of us kissing while holding a small blackboard that read: Marriage is a cobalt sky.
Maybe, someday, it will be for us. For now, it is illegal in Minnesota and if the Republicans get their way next year, our love will not only be illegal, but also unconstitutional.
Apparently, we are quite a threat—munching on potato chips and veggie trays from Costco while dancing about in our shiny used prom dresses and tuxes. What we really are is strong and courageous enough to take a second chance at a love we've had to hide.
By the way, someone misspelled the name of the tuxedo inside the lapel of my jacket. “Mourning” is supposed to be “morning”, a tuxedo style that originated in England and later became popular in Japan. It's just a black tux with tails, to be worn with striped pants.
Christine Stark's novel, *Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation*, is a Lambda Literary Finalist. For more information go to: www.christinestark.com
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@2012 Christine Stark